Lawyers present Al-Arian letter (8/9)Aug. 9, 2005
St. Petersburg Times
Prosecutors are trying to prove that Sami Al-Arian solicited money for terrorist acts.
By Meg Laughlin
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TAMPA - Prosecutors in the case of Sami Al-Arian returned Monday to what they have called a "very important" piece of evidence: a letter written by Al-Arian to a prominent friend in Kuwait. But the letter, which promised to be damaging to Al-Arian, fell flat.
The reason it promised to be so damaging: In it, Al-Arian praised a Palestinian Islamic Jihad double suicide bombing that killed 22 Israeli soldiers on Jan. 22, 1995, in Beit Lid, Israel. He asked Kuwaiti legislator Isma'il al-Shatti to raise money for the families of the suicide bombers "so operations such as these can continue."
The letter goes to the very heart of what prosecutors need to prove - that Al-Arian solicited money for future PIJ terrorist acts. But it ultimately failed as a piece of key evidence because defense attorneys and prosecutors agree that Al-Shatti says he never got the letter and never saw it.
The letter, handwritten in Arabic, was seized by FBI agents at Al-Arian's house in November 1995.
When it resurfaced Monday in court, Al-Arian's attorney Bill Moffitt asked the federal judge to declare a mistrial when jurors went out of the courtroom on a break.
"There is no good-faith basis in bringing in this letter," said Moffitt.
Prosecutor Terry Furr argued, "At the very least, it shows an attempt to get money after the designation," referring to the fact that the United States designated the PIJ a terrorist group on Jan. 23, 1995.
Moffit countered, "If it was never sent, it can't be an attempt at anything."
U.S. District Judge James S. Moody told Moffitt, "You can argue that he (Al-Arian) wrote the letter and never sent it. ... But it has other purposes. It goes to the issue of whether he remained a member of the PIJ (after the terrorist designation)."
"That doesn't say Dr. Al-Arian is guilty," Moffitt told the judge, who then suggested Moffitt make this point during closing arguments.
Also Monday, the judge challenged a specific piece of government evidence. He asked prosecutors how it got beyond the defendants' knowledge and emotional support of PIJ terrorist acts to get to the crux of the government's charges that the defendants raised money for future PIJ terrorist acts.
Moody questioned why prosecutors wanted to tell jurors about a March 1995 phone conversation in which Ramadan Shallah, a co-defendant who is not in custody, talks about how impressed he was with a video that showed Palestinians in Gaza reacting favorably to news of a suicide bombing.
The judge told prosecutors, "All you get here is Shallah happy that somebody blew himself up. That doesn't further the conspiracy, does it?"
Prosecutors have shown over and over that defendants Al-Arian, Sameeh Hammoudeh, Hatem Fariz and Ghassan Ballut knew of PIJ activities, and sometimes verbally supported acts of violence against Israeli soldiers in Israel's occupied territories, after they occurred. But the judge's comments Monday indicated he was ready for more and it was time to move on to evidence at the crux of the charges against the four men.
"This (phone conversation) might get the jury all excited ... but it doesn't further the conspiracy," said the judge.
Today, prosecutors will begin testimony by reading a March 1995 phone conversation between two PIJ leaders, Shallah in Tampa and Fathi Shikaki in Syria. They talk about "martyr videos" and whether the PIJ should change tactics to get its work done. They agree not to accept a compromise that Al-Arian has suggested, but they do not say what that compromise is.